Everybody has heard the rumors about Slayer finally hanging up their metal crown. But no one wants to believe it. And if you read what guitarist Kerry King has to say here, you really won't believe it. Having just released World Painted Blood, the band's eleventh album, the guitarist doesn't sound like he's ready to hang up his B.C. Rich anytime soon.
A lot of people are calling the new record their most powerful in the past 10 years so it seems a bit insane that they'd be talking about walking away from everything at this point. From the frenzied trade-off solos on Snuff to the violent riffs in Hate Worldwide and the low, trembling rumble of Americon, the album covers all the expected ground and presents it in a new and twisted way.
Here, King holds court on the new album, old albums, guitar playing, and a lot more.
Back in the day, you listened to Sabbath, Priest, and Iron Maiden. You looked at those bands as major influences. Can you sense that new bands now look at Slayer in that same way?
Seeing a bunch of opening bands because we have so many with all the festivals we do and on our own tours, it comes up.
Do you listen to new bands in any serious way?
I get CDs probably more than anybody in the band because I do more signings than anybody and people always bring em out. My rule of thumb is if somebody has time to give me a disc, I got time to listen to at least a couple songs eventually. So, yeah, I listen to a lot of stuff.
What about touring with bands like Lamb of God and Children of Bodom? Does what they do rub off on Slayer at all?
We've played with Lamb of God and Bodom. I just saw Bodom in Japan; they played the same show we did. I loved em. We've been on tour with them many times.
World Painted Blood presented a slightly different wrinkle inasmuch as you wrote the record in the studio instead of having the material prepared before you started recording? Do you think that lent more of an organic and cohesive feel to the record?
Yeah, that, and also what I think really affected us was consciously making sure nothing sounded the same. We wrote so quickly that it's really easy for songs to sound similar. So I know I went out of my way to make up riffs that sounded different than songs I'd already done for this album. So I think that made it overall more cohesive.
As a songwriter and a guitar player, you were trying to stretch yourself?
I think that's just part of being a guitar player and making up new music. Like I always try to think of things that I don't think I've heard before or haven't necessarily heard Slayer do. Like on this album, Snuff opens with a tradeoff lead in the beginning. And I know we've started songs off with leads but I don't think we've started one with a tradeoff. Even in that song there's a recurring double lead later in the song which I know we've never done. So even though people have done that, we haven't. And if I can ever think of something I've never heard anybody do, yeah, I'll definitely try to get that happening as well.
On Snuff, for example, you do the second solo and follow Jeff's solo. Have you listened to what Jeff has played and try to come up with some sort of complementary licks? Or do you not listen or not care what solo has come before you and you're just laying down whatever you feel?
Umm, usually I'll just do my own thing and if it makes sense in the context keep it obviously. But umm, if he's made up something and it doesn't work with what I'll play, I'll definitely rewrite something and try and make it better for one thing and also better for what he may have already recorded.
What about in terms of actual guitar tonality? If Jeff has a ton of sustain and distortion on his guitar, will you try and change up your sound to create a different sort of texture?
That's more of what I like the engineer to do. Cause Greg Fidelman who we just worked with will go out of his way and say, I like how this guitar sits with the other guitar in regard to the bass where I don't hear how things sit in the track. I don't get advanced like that, advanced to me. It's not what I do in the studio; I go into play.
Was Greg Fidelman an important part of the record? In the past you've worked with some other heavy people like Toby Wright, Dave Sardy, Andy Wallace. What was different with Greg?
Greg was probably the closest to a fifth member that we've had since [Andy] Wallace in the late 80s. He's very hands on; very articulate; and the first one there, the last one to leave kind of guy. And that's inspiring big time.
Did Rick Rubin ever come by?
I haven't seen Rick in probably 10 years [laughs].
Because you write so many of the riffs in the songs, do you already have a sort of pre-conceived idea of what the solo is going to be? Do you come in with solo ideas or are they off the cuff?
I generally go in with like 75 or 80 per cent figured out and then I go into record one that I made up in my room. Even though it sounds cool in my room, once you get in there playing it to the track, it may not be as cool as you thought it was so that might have to morph once I'm in there recording. And then there's ones where if it's gonna be a whammy fest, have fun on the trem bar, I might have a couple notes that I'll get to. But Dime told me ages ago as one of my pieces of advice that I kept from Dime, Do what you do. Don't make up everything when you've had success. Just go in there wreaking havoc with the whammy bar. So I kind of do that today. I go in like I said maybe 80 per cent ready to rock and then room for embellishment.
The whammy is a major part of your style. Were you listening to guitarists back in the day who were sort of whammy crazy?
Well, early on I was very big-time into Van Halen's first two records and even the third one when he was really a guitar player. Know what I mean? Not that he isn't today but he chooses not to be.
Eddie Van Halen really influenced you that much? Because you can't really hear his playing in what you do very much.
Yeah. I was way into his playing at that point in his career. You know and I mean Rhoads as well. I saw Rhoads on New Year's Eve the last time he came through the LA area which was really cool.
Had you ever seen Randy with Quiet Riot?
The solo in Hate Worldwide is a pretty nasty whammy excursion. Are you trying to create some kind of intense mood during your solo or just playing the notes that feel right?
I usually don't think about it as a whole, the whole song. I think about what I like over the rhythm pattern that's happenin'. And the extension of the solo at the end of my solo, I don't even think I went in there planning to do that. I think I just kind of went with it and it went all the way up to where the vocals come back in. When I wrote that part I don't think I planned on that being a lead; I think it just became one. It's really just an extension of the main lead that I played. That's when things are really happenin' and then that's more sparse.
On the other side of things, are there times when a section really doesn't work or you've missed the mark with the solo?
Oh, absolutely. I look back at South of Heaven as one of my low-points as a lead player because I just went in there and half-assed everything. I saw myself turning up on guitar polls and I understand they're popularity contests but if enough people are paying attention, I should be paying attention and I should be doing something better with what I'm doin'. That's why I went back and took some lessons before Seasons in the Abyss and brushed up on how I should be approaching leads and stuff like that.
Americon is another one of your songs and the only one in a dropped-D tuning. Does this type of tuning make you write differently?
Absolutely; that riff sucks in conventional tuning!
You've written in dropped-D before?
Yeah, that's just the only one on this record. I mean on the last one there was a couple; the one before that there was like three or four. We've experimented with a bunch of tunings which I think is cool rather than relying on them, you know? On Christ Illusion we went back to predominantly doing a half-step down which most of our original albums are. We experimented with the whole thing we were one-and-a-half steps down; we did dropped-D; we did 7-string. There is 7-string on this one too but they are more like an accent as opposed to relying on it to make the record cool. Know what I mean?
Do you work with altered tunings or open tunings at all?
What do you mean by open tunings?
Where the guitar is tuned to a chord without having to put any of your fingers on the fretboard?
That's far more manipulating than we do.
There are riffs on World Painted Blood that sound like they'd present a pretty big challenge for Tom as the singer and bass player. Playing these songs and doing the vocals would seem like a tall order.
Well, when I make stuff up and trying to play the riff, I might say, There's really no point in you playing this riff cause you gotta sing over this fucker. And I'll try to help him come up with something more remedial that makes sense.
So you will streamline the riff or just have him pumping 8th notes or whatever?
Yeah. I think the bass player should be like AC/DC; it should be like Ian Hill from Judas Priest. They're the backbone; they're not there to play the finesse riffs.
You've talked about drummer Dave Lombardo in negative and positive ways. Has his return to the band impacted you in terms of the music you wrote on World Painted Blood? How important is Dave to the Slayer sound?
The initial thing we do is get Dave's tracks happenin' and then we play everything else to that. It's been like that since the beginning.
"I always try to think of things that I don't think I've heard before."
Going back to the beginning, what does Show No Mercy mean to you now?
Well, sonically it's pretty horrible [laughs]. People ask me if I ever get bummed out by people that sound like Slayer on their first album? I'm like, Why would I? Our first album is fuckin' Iron Maiden here and there. It's essential to emulate your heroes to help you find what you need to become. And I don't think we really landed on that until Reign in Blood. I think we were still lookin' for it and that one kind of filled it up for us. I think people gotta start somewhere and emulating a hero is a good place to start.
People see Slayer as one of the bands that were really at the forefront of what became thrash metal. Was there a moment back in the day when you sensed that you really were creating something new musically? When you played these lightning fast licks and put them together with a screaming style of vocal and a certain very dark type of lyrical content, could you sense a style being born?
Well, I think it was speeding things up, adding the punk element which Dave and Jeff were really into at that point in our career, and just melding that to make it metal punk for lack of a better word. Now it's what people associate with thrash. Was there a magic moment so to speak? I don't think so. But it was an awfully long time ago so I might have forgotten, too.
You described earlier that South of Heaven was not a great showcase for you as a guitar player. What else do you remember about that record?
There's some really great songs on there. I think as far as leads go, I probably paid least attention to that. In my life I was moving to a different state and I know I didn't give that record the time I should have. And I look back at that one as myself going, I wish I would have done better on that record. You know there are still staples in the set like South of Heaven, Mandatory Suicide and Spill the Blood. We still bring songs back from that all the time. It's a great era, a great record, but just personally I definitely could have done better on it.
And then jumping all the way to the last record, Christ Illusion.
I think it's great, man. There's stuff on there that we haven't played live yet that I'd still like to incorporate into the set but we already got a new record so I've gotta concentrate on that one. But somewhere down the line I'm sure we'll get back to playing things off that we haven't played yet.
You've been a B.C. Rich player from those early records on. What was it about those guitars that you couldn't find in a Strat or a Les Paul type guitar?
Well, I didn't want to be a Les Paul or a Strat guy cause there were already ass loads of people that are famous for playing those. So I wanted to set my own fuckin' road. I was really into the active electronics and I was into the 24-fret fretboard. And neither the historic Strat or Les Paul had that.
What is the Kerry King guitar sound?
I like it live better; live it's just gargantuan. I'm runnin' three of my signature [Marshall] heads through six cabinets and I stagger the cabinets. I only run the bottoms also even though I got three high; I'm runnin' six bottoms. So head one runs cabinets one and four; head two runs cabinets two and five; and head three runs cabinets three and six. So you've got a wash of the three heads together.
Slayer is an insanely loud band?
It is loud on stage that's for sure! I don't like volume at head level and that's why I play out of the bottoms.
You talked about going back and taking lessons on the guitar and trying to become a better player. Are you a different player on World Painted Blood than you were on Show No Mercy?
Absolutely. Overall-wise and lead-wise, I can do things now I couldn't even think of doing then. And hopefully we're still doing this 10 years from now and I can say that again from then til now.
Will you be doing this 10 years from now?
[Short chuckle] Uh, maybe. I associate it with the physicality of what we do. I saw Heaven and Hell or Black Sabbath or however you want to call em and they sound just like the fuckin' record; it's awesome. But they stand there and that's cool because they've always just stood there. If we just stood there you're taking away an element of our live show. And I don't want to take anything away. If we can't put on a Slayer show for what we're historically known to do, I don't want to do it.
Did the band step up on World Painted Blood? Did Slayer accomplish everything they set out to do on this record?
We don't set out goals; we just make up the next batch of songs that collectively make a record. We don't over think things; we just go with it. And I think that's cool and it's very street and I think that translates to fans and stuff; they get it.
"I didn't want to be a Les Paul or a Strat guy 'cause there were already ass loads of people that are famous for playing those."
Obviously. In terms of the longevity of a band, Slayer have surpassed most of its competition. Did you have any idea it would last this long and be this successful?
When we won our first Grammy, people said, Are you stoked? Does it mean anything to you? I'm like, You know what that means? It means we're fuckin' a household name.
And that's a good thing, right?
Oh, it doesn't suck! But the awards that mean more to me, even though we have two Grammys, is stuff from Metal Hammer and Kerrang! where the fans are really involved with picking it. Cause that's what's important to me: the fan's respect.
Where would you have been if Slayer hadn't won the Grammys and sold all those records? Would you still be doing it without the success?
It's hard to say. That's a very open question with lots of ways for things to go down. But it's safe to say that. I mean if this ended tomorrow, I would probably continue to play with Dave because Dave has loads of fire left. And I've got loads of friends in this business who would be stoked to play with me and I'd be stoked to play with them. There's so many options for me to play with. People talked about me, Dime, and Zakk for a long time; and people talk about me and Zakk or me and this guy or me and that guy. And that may happen at some point.
You bring up Zakk so certainly you heard about Ozzy firing him. Any feelings about that?
Yeah, mostly bitter. Zakk is my friend and Ozzy's an acquaintance but Zakk is such a superstar to see anybody in his place doesn't make sense to me. And just introducing a new guitar player with Ozzy now doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. What's Ozzy gonna do that he hasn't done?
Have you heard Gus G. play?
I'm sure he's awesome for Ozzy to even breathe his name but there's such a legacy with Zakk. He's such a Rhoads disciple. Hopefully it works out well for Ozz and Zakk's got Black Label for sure. But I just don't know. I did the Ozzfest in '08, the one they had in Dallas when they had the Dime tribute. I went up and played with Vinnie Paul and Mike Inez and Chad from Mudvayne and later on, of course there's Zakk playing with Ozzy and he was killing and running around and doing his Zakk Wylde thing. That's a big thing to replace.
So for now, Slayer is your main priority?
Yeah, I mean I'm part of one of the biggest things there is in the metal world so I make sure all my time gets dedicated to that. I've got to make sure Slayer is taken care of first.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"If we can't put on a Slayer show for what we're historically known to do, I don't want to do it."